I used to believe the easiest way to extract ourselves from Iraq would probably involve breaking the country into three separate states. Then I realized there was a problem with that approach, one far larger than the familiar questions of how to divide the oil revenue or how to keep Turkey calm in the face of an independent Kurdistan. Toby Dodge pointed it out in September, when Joe Biden was promoting a "soft" partition of the country:
If you look at the three communities that are allegedly going to be partitioned, go down to the supposed Shiistan in the south. What we have in the south is a low-level civil war between the two main Shiite parties led by members of the Badr Brigade and al-Sadr. So, are we going to partition the south into a Badristan and a Sadristan? When we come up to supposed Sunnistan, we have a fight between al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, a largely indigenous organization with foreign leadership, and the so-called sheikhs of Anbar—that is an intra-Sunni fight. Then we have Kurdistan. The Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan fought a vicious civil war in the 1990s, where the KDP actually asked Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard to come in and help them. The idea that we have three neat communities is sociologically and politically illiterate.
For Dodge, this is an argument against partition. For me, it's an argument against carelessly invoking the number three. Iraq is already devolving into far more jurisdictions than that.
The recent reduction in violence reflects both the ugly side of that devolution, as ethnic cleansing runs its course, and the positive side, as local institutions fill the void left by the central state. With no sign of a national political "reconciliation"—the original point of the surge, you may recall—those shaky local institutions are all the Iraqis have to work with.
How should the U.S. react to that? Marc Lynch has been hosting a debate about that very question at his Abu Aardvark site. Here, from the latest post, is Lynch's summary of the points of consensus:
[W]e all basically agree on where Iraq is heading—a highly decentralized state, without a formal or even semi-formal partition, where governance and security is increasingly devolving to localities. Whether this is "federalism" or a "warlord state" is what is in question; a strong central democratic state rooted in a general consensus on political identity and norms is off the table. Whether we state it or not, we all seem to expect that the formal Iraqi state will likely remain governed by the existing political rules, meaning a monopoly of the major Shia parties supported by a deal to leave the Kurds alone in exchange for their votes. We all agree that the situation in the Shia areas is beyond American control and likely to remain violent, fragmented and unstable. And none of us think that there will be any national level political accomodation. Never mind that the situation just described used to be defined as "failure"—the important issue here now, as Kahl and Katulis agree, is how to respond to this lousy scenario to best protect American (and Iraqi?) interests.
My one contribution to the discussion: Is there anything to learn from Somalia's experience? Virtually everyone predicted the Somali civil war would worsen when the U.S. pulled out. But it didn't take long for the pent-up violence to run its course, and the country (if we can still call it that) soon reached a relatively peaceful equilibrium, with a political system that fell somewhere on the spectrum between anarcho-capitalism and a collection of mafia fiefdoms. It wasn't ideal, but it also wasn't nearly as violent as the civil war had been—at least until recently, when the war on terror undermined the emerging social order.
Iraq is not Somalia. But Somalia shows that local reconciliation can have positive effects even when national unity is impossible—and that sometimes it's easier to reconcile when outside troops aren't around. At this point in the Iraq war the U.S. has no good options, but withdrawal looks far better than all the others.